The Gophers will have a new play-caller in 2022 as offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. will not return for a third season with the team, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed to the Star Tribune on Monday.
Sanford's contract is set to expire on Jan. 31. He was making $650,000 and will not coach in the Gophers bowl game, per the source.
Sanford oversaw an offense that had an up-and-down season, closing strong with a 23-13 win against a tough Wisconsin defense on Saturday as the team finished the regular season 8-4. But the offense also struggled mightily in a 14-10 loss to lowly Bowling Green and a 14-6 loss to Illinois.
With Sanford replacing Kirk Ciarrocca, who left for Penn State following the 2019 regular season, Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan and the passing offense saw their productivity decline the past two seasons.
With the help of a pair of wide receivers now in the NFL, Morgan passed for school records of 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2019 on his way to second-team All-Big Ten honors. He averaged 250.2 passing yards per game.
In 2020, Morgan's average dropped to 196.3 yards, and he had seven touchdown passes with five interceptions in seven games. This year as the Gophers emphasized the running game, rushing 69.3% of the time, Morgan passed for an average of 161.3 yards per game with 10 TDs and eight interceptions.
The Gophers averaged 26.1 points per game this season, down eight points from their 2019 mark of 34.1. Their passing offense of 166.4 yards per game ranked 12th in the Big Ten and 115th nationally among 130 FBS teams.
The Gophers will learn their bowl game destination on Sunday.
When Ciarrocca left to become Penn State's offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach Matt Simon served as Gophers offensive coordinator for the 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn. Sanford was hired as co-offensive coordinator with Simon, but Sanford served as the main play-caller.
As for a replacement for Sanford, the Gophers could turn to Simon, a Farmington native who's been with coach P.J. Fleck since 2014 at Western Michigan. Another intriguing name could be Ciarrocca, an offensive analyst at West Virginia this season after being let go after one year at Penn State. Gophers running backs coach Kenni Burns has excelled with his group, and tight ends coach Clay Patterson is a former offensive coordinator at the junior college and Division II levels.
Fleck signed a new contract Nov. 2 that runs through the 2028 season and gives him an additional $350,000 next year to add to salaries of assistant coaches and other staff members.
The new offensive coordinator also will enjoy the return of running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten running back of the year who was lost in the 2021 opener because of a torn Achilles' tendon. The Gophers relied heavily this season on redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar'Keise Irving after two other veterans, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams, were lost to season-ending injuries.
The news came Sunday that Morgan will return for a sixth season with the chance to be the starter for his fourth full season. Two backup QBs, Zack Annexstad and Jacob Clark, have entered the transfer portal.
Minnesota averaged 198.5 rushing yards per game this year, 31st nationally and third in the Big Ten. The Gophers also ranked fourth nationally in time of possession (35:10).